The government has been accused of treating parliament “with contempt” by trying to drive through its controversial social work reforms without proper scrutiny.
In a House of Lords debate on the Children and Social Work Bill, Labour said the lack of detail in the bill’s section on social work reform prevented proper parliamentary scrutiny and challenge.
The Liberal Democrats said the bill had “significant deficiencies”.
The claims centre on the government’s decision to use a so-called “skeleton bill” for the reforms. This is because the bill delegates powers to ministers and leaves details for secondary legislation. A House of Lords report warned this approach allows government to pass laws “with greater ease and with less scrutiny”.
Peers’ concerns surrounding the Children and Social Work Bill largely centred on part two of the bill – which deals with social work reform, including the creation of a new regulatory system for the profession.
Labour said the implications of this section of the bill was “just not known” because the lack of detail means it “disappears off into the mist”.
Opposition spokesman Lord Watson of Invergowrie said: “From that point it’s a skeleton bill.
“This is no way to legislate…Were this a one-off occurrence, we would not perhaps make too much of it.”
But he added: “This has become an all too familiar pattern with not just this Bill and the Education and Adoption Bill, but other Bills in your Lordships’ House over the last year.
“That is a completely unacceptable development.”
He later added: “We cannot scrutinise that which we cannot see.”
Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Pinnock said there was “much to be supported in the bill” but it was “much to be regretted that its content is so ill-defined”.
She said: “Those who are more experienced in these matters than I claim that the Bill is so lacking in detail that the work of this House in scrutinising and challenging it is well-nigh impossible.”
She backed Labour’s motion “which draws the attention of the House to these significant deficiencies”.
Questions over regulatory changes
Labour also questioned why the government felt a new regulator for social work was necessary just years after it had shut down a dedicated social work regulator, the General Social Care Council, and transferred the responsibilities to the multi-profession regulator the Health and Care Professions Council.
The HCPC is financially and operationally independent of government. Lord Watson said Labour was “greatly concerned” that the government’s bill would place regulation under direct government control.
He said: “Even a government-appointed body would risk professional standards being subject to the political priorities of government, rather than a professional evidence base. These proposals will make social work the only health or social care profession to be directly regulated by government, and the Bill must be amended to create greater independence for any regulatory body established.”
Baroness Pinnock said government-controlled regulation of social work would defy best practice “which is that those who may have to challenge the state are not controlled by the state”. She added: “this proposal must be significantly amended”.
Non-affiliated peer Lord Warner, a former director of social services who served as a health minister in the last Labour government, said the planned overhaul of social work regulation was “ill-thought through”.
He said: “It beggars belief that DfE Ministers now want to take wide powers to throw all the social work regulatory cards up in the air again, particularly when Department of Health Ministers have made no criticisms of the PSA [Professional Standards Authority] or the HCPC.”
He added: “Why do DfE ministers want to set up a totally new body for social workers, rather than build on the work of the existing regulator? What consultations have they had with Department of Health Ministers and officials and the professional bodies concerned?
“What are their dissatisfactions with the current regulators, and what estimate have they made of the costs of implementing Part 2, given that it cost about £18 million—and that was some time ago—to shut down the GSCC and transfer its functions to the HCPC?”
Labour peer Baroness Pitkeathly, a former social worker, said she had three “main objections” to the new regulator. She said the government’s proposals “run entirely contrary” to the principles of better regulation and risked isolating social workers at a time wider policy was promoting more integration in the way health and social care works.
Her second concern was on the new regulator’s “lack of independence” from government, which ran counter to the “well-established principle” that regulation shoud be independent of government but directly accountable to parliament. Her third concern was around the costs of the new body.
She said: “The up-front cost of setting up such a body will have to be borne by government, unless it is going to be borne by social workers. Each year, social workers pay £90 to remain on the HCPC’s register. Therefore, the proposed policy will entail either a significant increase in fees for social workers or substantial ongoing costs to the taxpayer if it cannot operate on those fees.”
Responding to the debate, education minister Lord Nash defended the use of delegated powers in the bill. He said the government was “firmly of the view” this was the best way of setting up the new regulator as it would allow the government to update the legal framework more easily to reflect changing professional standards.
He said the decision to set up a new social work regulator was “in no sense a criticism” of the HCPC.
“Rather, it is a reflection of the unique position of social workers and of the uniquely difficult role they perform in supporting those people and children in society who are the most vulnerable or who have the greatest need,” he said.
“It is the government’s belief that the interests of the people supported by social workers and the interests of the social work profession will be best served by a specialist regulator with a single focus on this profession.”